Chipsets have a part to play in every function your phone performs and impacts the all-round practical experience in a major way. Until a few years back, masses didn’t really care about smartphone chipsets beyond the number of cores and maximum clock frequency, but things have gradually changed for the good and this is one factor that now weighs the heaviest in buying decisions.
To begin with, chipsets or System-on-Chips (SoCs) includes several components besides processor or CPU cores that define support for display resolution, graphics, camera capabilities, Location locking, battery charging speeds, and connectivity.
This is a beginner’s guide that shall help you avoid rookie mistakes and bring you up to speed with ‘chipset talk’ in order to help you assist with your buying decision.
Quad-core vs. Hexa-core vs. Octa-core vs. Deca-core – The number doesn’t matter
We still run into people who put their faith in more cores, but since most modern chipsets have 8 cores, this isn’t really a point of contention. How these cores are arranged (big.LITTLE, DynamIQ), what their base ARM architecture (Cortex-A55, Cortex-A77) is, what process they are based on, and how they communicate with each other and with RAM and Storage on your phone are factors that ultimately impact the end performance.
Process Technology (5nm, 7nm, 10nm, etc.)
There’s a lot of confusion regarding what “7nm” or “10nm” in process nodes actually means. Nanometer or nm is the unit of measuring distance, but as of today, the 7nm or 10nm in the process node names doesn’t correspond to distance between transistors, or the m1 half-pitch, or even the size of the transistor gate as it historically used to.
Yes, our chipsets and CPU cores are getting denser and have more and smaller transistors, but with the increase in complexity of the manufacturing process 14nm, 10nm, 7nm, 5nm dimensions have lost their meaning and are now simply used to denote the generational change in the manufacturing process, perhaps because the node terminology is easier to market.
Shifting to a smaller process node is technologically challenging but entails huge benefits. This helps chipsets become more power efficient or, in other words, manufacturers can increase performance without the risk of incurring any battery penalty.
Every new process node is judged on three primary metrics – Power, Performance, and Area (PPA). Designers try to balance and improve the three areas but factors like Cost and Time-to-market (together PPACT) are given due consideration when chipset makers decide between process node options.
All flagship chipsets in 2019 and 2020 are based on different 7nm processes and TSMC is already ready with 5nm node that will be used for chipsets we see towards the end of 2020.
Clock Frequency (2.9GHz, 1.8GHz, etc.)
Increasing clock frequency appears to be the simplest yet the worst way of boosting performance because doing so exponentially increases power consumption. This explains why manufacturers have been very conservative about increasing clock frequencies. Performance gains we get every year can be attributed to improvements in core architectures and memory subsystems (which we will get to in a bit).
The Snapdragon 855 and Snapdragon 865, for instance, have only one high clocked Prime core, three performance cores and 4 power cores for less demanding tasks.
It must be noted that the clock frequency numbers you see on the spec-sheet refer to the maximum core frequency, and in practice, cores most often run at reduced frequencies (depending on the task at hand). Some chipset makers are quite conservative in this regard.
Ever since the industry shifted to 64-bit chipsets, improving power efficiency has been the prime focus. However, power consumption for mobile chipsets has increased over the last two generations. This is because of the popularity of demanding applications like gaming and also because smartphone manufacturers now have advanced their designs to better handle heating and related ailments.
Core architectures (Cortex-A77, Cortex-A55)
CPU cores on a chipset are generally referred to as just cores or processors. The fetch instructions and execute them. Adding more core doesn’t linearly improve performance, or in other words, using four cores for executing the same instruction set is never 4x faster than when using a single core.
As we stated earlier, performance gains in smartphones over the last few years are primarily a result of improvements in memory subsystems and in CPU core design.
ARM has a monopoly with application processors and all popular mobile phones including those from Apple use ARM designed cores. Some manufacturers have a “build on ARM” license that lets them customize this architecture to an extent.
For instance, Customized Kryo cores on Qualcomm Snapdragon chips have always proved to be a huge marketing advantage. In 2020, however, all chipset makers including Samsung and Qualcomm have dialed back to using regular ARM cores. The Kryo 585 cores on Snapdragon 865 are mostly the same as regular Cortex-A77 cores.
The last time when manufacturers resorted to directly lifting ARM cores of the self was when smartphone SoCs transitioned from 32-bit to 64-bit and back then we had to endure catastrophic chips like Snapdragon 810. This time around, however, ARM cores have vastly improved.
Cortex-A55 is currently the most popular core architecture across chipsets. On high-end chipsets, these cores are used as power cores for handling background tasks and other light loads.
On the high-end, Cortex-A77 and Cortex-A76 cores are what you’d mostly see across 2020. These are powerful and efficient cores that can be grouped together using DynamIQ technology.
Your phones have different types of memories – cache, RAM, eMMC or UFS storage, SD card storage. All of these memories are slower than CPU cores, and thus your UFS or even dynamic RAM memory can not feed the Cores at the required speed.
The issue is resolved by using different types of memories and by predicting and queuing in advance data and instructions that CPU might require in subsequent cycles.
Engineers work to improve the efficiency of communication between different cores and between cores and memory. Different types of memories and improvements in memory subsystems is what truly differentiates one premium chipset from another.
The GPU is the part primarily responsible for driving graphics on your phone screen. Other factors constant, a better GPU should result in the better rendering of games on your phone.
On the Android side of things, Qualcomm’s Adreno GPU’s have had a massive lead over ARM’s Mali GPUs that Samsung and Hi-Silicon use in their Exynos and Kirin chipsets, respectively.
Apple GPUs currently outperform both Adreno and Mali GPUs. Apple took the pole position with the GPU on A12 Bionic and has maintained its lead with the A13 Bionic.
ARM has reinvented its GPUs this year with Valhall design on Mali-G77 and has significantly narrowed the gap with Apple and Adreno rivals. So, on flagship chips in 2020, all GPUs are now powerful enough.
Adreno GPUs follow a straight forward nomenclature and the bigger number represents the more powerful option. For instance, Adreno 650 will be more advanced than, say, Adreno 620.
Naming gets a bit complicated for Mali GPUs. For instance, Mali G76 MP11 and Mali G76 MP6 are two variants with 11 (MP4) and 6 (MP6) GPU cores, respectively.
NPU and Co-processors
NPUs (Neural Processing Units) and Co-processors are additional cores that are responsible for executing AI, Machine Learning and other specific tasks loads on phones. Using NPUs and co-processors helps improve power efficiency as the main GPU cores need not be taxed as much or as often.
With AI and computational photography becoming increasingly demanding, these components are now very much essential to flagship phones. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips don’t have a dedicated NPU, though. They distribute AI workload over Hexagon DSP, CPU and GPU cores.
Modem and Connectivity
In 2020, 5G will be marketed in a big way. All current generation chipsets starting from Q4 2018 will have 5G support and thus all 2020 flagships will be 5G ready.
In 2020, we will have a mix of chipsets with dedicated and discrete 5G modems, but this isn’t something users should pay much heed to as of today.
Support for connectivity options like Dual VoLTE support, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth, etc. is also defined by the chipset used on your phone.
Why are Apple chipsets better?
Yes, Apple’s chipsets have a comfortable performance lead and there are various reasons explaining why this is the case.
To begin with, Apple was the first to shift to 64-bit ARMv8 architecture and had a couple of years of head start. But the main reason for why Apple’s Bionic chips are better than Android rivals lies in the different approach Android SoC vendors take.
Apple has been very generous about die sizes and limiting cost isn’t as big a factor as it is for makers like Qualcomm who’s design approach gives precedence to factors like cost, time to market, volumes, and integrating current Android trends.
Give it to me straight:
Understanding chipsets talk will help you separate what matters from marketing jargon, but consumers don’t get to choose between individual components. Apple, Huawei, and Samsung use their own chipsets on their flagship phones.
On the Android side of things, Qualcomm has emerged as a winner but flagship chips from all brands including Samsung and Huawei are now good enough to satisfy even the most demanding of users.
In the mid-range segment, Qualcomm options in Snapdragon 600 and 700-series have a clear cut lead in terms of both market share and performance over chips like Kirin 710 and Exynos 96xx-series.
MediaTek appears to be making a comeback with chipsets like Dimensity 1000 and Helio G90T.
Here’s a list of most popular chipsets on phones in 2020
|Popular Entry-Level SoCs|
|Snapdragon 665||The most popular affordable chipset that has replaced Snapdragon 400 series.|
|Snapdragon 660||Snapdragon 660 now stands dated but can still be spotted in popular affordable phones.|
|Snapdragon 675||Snapdragon 675 can be found in both affordable online phones and mid-range offline phones.|
|MediaTek Helio P70||MediaTek Helio P70 has emerged as a popular alternative to Snapdragon chipsets for affordable phones.|
|Exynos 7904||Exynos 7904 is a relatively weak performer but is still available in a few popular low-end Samsung M-series phones.|
|Popular Mid-Range SoCs|
|Snapdragon 765/ 765G||Snapdragon 765G is the first Qualcomm chipset with an integrated 5G modem. This should be widely adopted in 5G ready mid-range phones in 2020.|
|Exynos 980||Exynos 980 has integrated 5G modem and is being adopted by multiple brands that are in a hurry to bring dual-mode 5G phones.|
|Snapdragon 730/730G||We expect Snapdragon 730 chips to be a lot more prominent in competitive affordable phones next year.|
|Snapdragon 712||Snapdragon 712 was the popular ingredient in affordable gaming phones in 2019. It’s quite a powerful performer.|
|Snapdragon 710||Snapdragon 710 got some bad press for being dated, but it’s still a relevant and power chip.|
|MediaTek G90/ G90T||Helio G90T was the only popular MediaTek chipset in 2019. It powers the Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro.|
|Kirin 810||Kirin 810 is a major upgrade to Kirin 710 and significantly improves the performance of mid-range Huawei phones like Honor 9X.|
|Exynos 9611||Exynos 9611 is what we will see in fresh affordable Galaxy M and A-series phones from Samsung. Popular options include Galaxy M30s and Galaxy A50s.|
|Exynos 9610||Exynos 9610 is now being replaced by Exynos 9611. It can still be found on last-gen A-series phones like Galaxy A50.|
|Exynos 9609||This is a slightly different variant of Exynos 9610 and powers a couple of affordable Lenovo phones like Moto One Vision and Moto One Action. This one is phasing out as well.|
|Popular High-End SoCs|
|Snapdragon 865||The latest Qualcomm flagship that will be a part all 2020 flagships.|
|Kirin 990 5G/ 990||This is the current Huawei flagship chipset used on Mate 30 and P40-series phones.|
|Exynos 990||Exynos 990 powers Samsung’s 2020 flagships like Galaxy S11 in select markets including India.|
|Snapdragon 855/ 855+||The last year Qualcomm flagship that should remain popular in 2020.|
|Exynos 9825||The first 7nm process based chipset from Samsung used on Galaxy Note 10 and Galaxy Note 10+.|
|Exynos 9820||This is a powerful chipset that you will find on Galaxy S10- series only.|